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Published on July 16th, 2014 | by Daniel Castro

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5 Q’s for Agriculture Innovation Specialist Monty Edwards

The Center for Data Innovation spoke with Monty Edwards, an agriculture innovation specialist with the Grower Information Services Cooperative. Edwards discussed the growing role of data in agriculture and efforts by farmers to use, share, and monetize their data.

Daniel Castro: What types of data are being generated on farms today, and how is this data collected?

Monty Edwards: Multiple types of data are generated by growers both on and off the farm that pertain to their operations. While there is a rapid increase in the data generated and collected in the field by use of Precision Ag equipment and software, this only scratches the surface. Other sources include: data collected at grain delivery points and processors, purchase and customer interaction data generated with thousands of agri-businesses and professional service providers that interact with the grower, data reported to the government for compliance and risk protection programs, and many other sources. Many of the data are still collected in manual, mundane processes. Right now, the focus on data analytics and “Big Data” in agriculture is obviously the geometrically increasing Precision Ag data, yet many other sources of data with extreme value are becoming attainable due to the ever-increasing adoption of mobile technologies by growers and their agri-business counterparts. Growers interact with multiple parties throughout the year and exchange data either electronically or manually, but the way growers interact is changing rapidly and offers great opportunity for disruption to the current systems.

Castro: What are some of the exciting uses of farm data and analytics that you are seeing today?

Edwards: Some innovative growers, and agri-businesses, are taking advantage of the unbelievable capabilities at their fingertips to master their data universe. These innovators typically use one of three approaches. They either take a micro-approach through the detailed use of Precision Ag techniques, equipment, and software, analyzing data literally down to the square inch of each acre. Others take the macro-approach by incorporating analysis of current and historic industry wide data sets. The third approach, taken by a few, is to incorporate the two approaches: utilizing Precision Ag data analysis within the context of broader industry data sets. Unfortunately, while we see agri-businesses, with sizable research and development budgets, taking advantage of Big Data analytics, growers, with limited time and capital, have difficulty doing the same. It is very difficult for the individual grower to unlock this potential, even with the size of the average farm growing larger each year. The great thing is that there is significant, untapped potential to unlock productivity gains through the use of Big Data techniques and data analytics for the American Farmer and agri-businesses of all sizes as well. For this to be realized, information flow in agriculture – including, but not limited to, Precision Ag data – must greatly improve, and growers’ participation and involvement is fundamental in this equation.

Monty Edwards

Castro: What was your motivation in forming the Grower Information Services Cooperative (GISC)?

Edwards: The issues around grower information transcend commodity type, location, and political affiliation. The strength of bringing growers from across the country together is obvious. We believe that American farmers and ranchers must be the hub of the wheel for data to flow effectively in agriculture. We realized the need for a grower owned organization to create this hub, and growers understand, and are comfortable with, a cooperative structure. A national information and data cooperative just makes sense: it provides growers with control over their data, and the use of their data, and provides growers a mechanism for realizing the potential value of their data, as a stand-alone data set and incorporated in larger aggregated data sets.

The grower is almost always a direct participant in regards to the relevant data produced on their farms. It only makes sense that the originator/creator of the data is the one with the greatest interest in harnessing and controlling the power of the information. While some may question who owns the data generated on and off the farm in relation to the growers’ business activities, we do not. We believe the grower owns his data. It is clear that most parties inherently acknowledge that the grower does own the data pertaining to his operation. However, it is difficult to organize and interact with individual growers to address this fact.

Many cooperatives were formed to help growers market their commodities, and many other cooperatives were formed to assist rural Americans build needed infrastructure, such as telephone and electric cooperatives formed in the early to mid-20th century. We believe that farm data is a commodity universally produced by growers, and an information services cooperative can create value for growers by building the necessary communications infrastructure to create an effective, and highly automated information exchange. This information exchange creates tremendous value for individual growers by facilitating the development of aggregated data sets. The cooperative business structure shares this value with its grower-members who created the information in the first place.

Finally, it is well documented that growers in general are weary about who has control and access to their data. The results of our findings is that growers are very comfortable with the concept of a grower-owned information services cooperative as a trusted technology partner working with growers to help solve these issues. Growers are much less comfortable with the prospect of the choice between accepting the terms and conditions to utilize the technologies of large, multi-national corporations, whose interests may be in conflict with the grower, or being left out in the dark.

Castro: A key part of data-driven innovation in many sectors is having the ability to share and reuse data. How do you hope to help growers maximize the value of their data—both for themselves and others?

Edwards: Another question that ties in with our primary focus! Our technology partner is actually in the development of the “Agriculture Producers Exchange,” or what we affectionately term AgProX. This is a patent-pending information system that will revolutionize the ease of information exchange in agriculture. This system will provide a grower with connections to their business partners that they deal with regularly and the communication tools to facilitate the seamless movement of information among these groups. We have found that on average there are 12-15 business partners for each grower. While growers will always be able to directly store data in the system, the exchange will also allow the grower’s business partners the capability to push data that they track or accumulate through their interaction with the grower into the system for the grower’s benefit. This data is usually needed and valuable to the grower’s other business partners.

At the heart of the system and central to our mission, the AgProX Information Exchange puts the grower in charge, allowing the grower to maintain control of their information. The grower decides the “who, what, where, and when” in regards to sharing their data. We are extremely focused on giving American growers the capability to effectively store, control, share, and utilize the data they produce. We are dedicated to remaining neutral to all parties in agriculture that work with the grower. Alienation of any of these groups would be counterproductive to the goal of creating an effective information repository and exchange. No doubt, the long term data analytic possibilities of this grower-owned data, located in one single repository, seem almost limitless. In order for the grower to maximize the value of the data, it must be readily available to the parties that need it. There needs to be a common marketplace for the data – that is what we are creating.

Castro: What impact will the adoption of precision agriculture techniques and tools have on the industry over the long term?

Edwards: Overall, we see precision agriculture techniques and tools as very beneficial, not only to the individual farmer who utilizes the capability, but to the industry in general. As input cost rise and the world population continues to increase, it will become critically important to cost-effectively maximize production. These productivity increases must be realized while ensuring the sustainability of agriculture into the future by further developing better practices that will keep our food and water sources safe and viable. These challenges are real, but what is exciting is that I see exponential increases in innovation when we combine all the facets of rapidly advancing technology applications in agriculture of which Precision Ag is one of many components. Some of the others include mobile technology adoption, more user-friendly technologies, and decreased incremental cost of storage and processing power. We believe these and many other advances will take the American grower to an entirely new plateau. That is why we are working tirelessly for the best possible outcome for our coop members.

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About the Author

Daniel Castro is the director of the Center for Data Innovation and vice president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. Mr. Castro writes and speaks on a variety of issues related to information technology and internet policy, including data, privacy, security, intellectual property, internet governance, e-government, and accessibility for people with disabilities. His work has been quoted and cited in numerous media outlets, including The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, NPR, USA Today, Bloomberg News, and Businessweek. In 2013, Mr. Castro was named to FedScoop’s list of “Top 25 most influential people under 40 in government and tech.” In 2015, U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker appointed Mr. Castro to the Commerce Data Advisory Council. Mr. Castro previously worked as an IT analyst at the Government Accountability Office (GAO) where he audited IT security and management controls at various government agencies. He contributed to GAO reports on the state of information security at a variety of federal agencies, including the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC). In addition, Mr. Castro was a Visiting Scientist at the Software Engineering Institute (SEI) in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania where he developed virtual training simulations to provide clients with hands-on training of the latest information security tools. He has a B.S. in Foreign Service from Georgetown University and an M.S. in Information Security Technology and Management from Carnegie Mellon University.



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